Ian Lavender: 'Dad's Army cost me a career in the movies'

Ian Lavender was 22 when he was cast as mummy's boy Private Pike in Dad's Army. It was a role that would come to haunt his career, stopping him from getting meatier parts. His one-man Edinburgh show explains all

The artist formerly known as Stupid Boy arrives for lunch in a convertible Mini, Suffolk’s summer breeze wafting through his white hair and beard as he pulls up outside the pub. Ian Lavender, 68, is most famous for playing Frank Pike, the mollycoddled private in Dad’s Army. This mummy’s boy, along with a bunch of doddery gents, may have constituted Blighty’s laughable last line of defence against Nazi invasion, but there is nothing wimpish about Lavender’s handshake. You could even call it virile.

Virile – but with a sense of mortality. “I know,” Lavender says, as he flicks a wasp away from his half of cider, “that that car is the last knockings of a late midlife crisis. I know that in a couple of years, I’ll be getting a car more suited to my age. Something,” he adds darkly, “sensible.” Intimations of mortality, too, guide his choice of cats. “We won’t get a kitten. Who knows if I’d be around when it was 18?”

Lavender was 22 in 1968, when he got the part of Pike, joining a cast of already venerable and respected thesps – including Arthur Lowe, John Le Mesurier, Clive Dunn and John Laurie – in his first substantial professional role. Now he’s the leading survivor of a sitcom whose final episode was first broadcast in 1977. The other platoon members are all gone and, since Bill Pertwee (Warden Hodges) died last year, Lavender has become the unwilling keeper of the flame. When news broke earlier this year that a Dad’s Army film was being planned – with Toby Jones as Captain Mainwaring and Bill Nighy as Sergeant Wilson – Lavender’s opinion was sought. “The press wanted me to say it was an abomination. All I would say is that the casting is inspired.”

Lavender has embraced the role that has cast a shadow over his career. Even if it’s meant he still gets called Stupid Boy (after Captain Mainwaring’s continual putdown). “I’m very proud of Dad’s Army. If you asked me, ‘Would you like to be in a sitcom that was watched by 18 million people, was on screen for 10 years, and will create lots of work for you and provide not just for you but for your children for the next 40-odd years?’ – which is what’s happened – I’d have been a fool to say, ‘Bugger off.’ I’d be a fool to have regrets.”

Dad's Army
The Dad’s Army regulars: from left, Arthur Lowe, John Le Mesurier, Clive Dunn, John Laurie, Arnold Ridley, Ian Lavender (in scarf) and James Beck. Photograph: BBC/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar Photograph: BBC/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

That said, he admits Pike has stopped him getting work. “I was close to getting two very big movies in the 70s,” he says, “but in the end, they said, ‘We can’t get past Private Pike.’” He won’t say what those films were. Just as I’m wondering, he starts juggling with an apple for the photographer, then adds: “Pike is why I was in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in rep at Worcester, rather than in the West End.” This also, perhaps, explains why his second best known role is Derek Harkinson, Pauline Fowler’s gay friend from EastEnders in the millennium’s early years.

When I ask Lavender what he’s proudest of, Pike doesn’t get a mention. He cites his kids (one of whom, Sam Lavender, is commissioning executive at Film4), his second wife Michelle and his grandkids before telling me his proudest moment was finding Buster Keaton’s grave in Hollywood’s Fountain Lawns cemetery. Keaton is Lavender’s obsession: ever since his mum took him to see The General at a Birmingham fleapit, he’s adored the silent comedian. Keaton inspired him to become an actor, to insist on going to Bristol Old Vic theatre school rather than university, as his policeman dad would have preferred. Being an actor has, however, proved exquisite torture. “I remember seeing Bill Nighy at the National. I just thought, ‘What am I doing in this game? I couldn’t do what he does in a million years.’ I get that feeling every time I go to the theatre – it confirmed my sense of inadequacy.”

Lavender has just broken off from rehearsals to tell me about his Edinburgh show, Don’t Tell Him Pike, in which he reminisces, shows clips and fields questions about Dad’s Army. It’s his second successive year at the fringe: last year, he appeared opposite Omid Djalili in an adaptation of The Shawshank Redemption. He still has fond memories of making Dad’s Army, recalling that Lowe, who played Mainwaring, was notoriously reluctant to look at a script when not on set. “We would spend half the rehearsals helping him learn his lines. But what you saw on screen was the result of that way of working, so it was worth it.” Lowe also suffered from narcolepsy. “He once fell asleep on stage. He did the same when he came round for dinner once – head first into the soup. I know it wasn’t because he was bored of what I was saying. I was talking about how he could best invest his money, something he was very interested in.”

It was only after 80 episodes, though, that Lavender got the full picture about the character he played. When they wrapped for the last time, he went up to co-writer David Croft and asked if Pike was really Sergeant Wilson’s son, the spawn of a furtive relationship with Mrs Pike. “David said, ‘Of course.’ I never knew until then. I just said the lines.”

Who will play Pike in the film? “Not me,” he says. “I’m too old.” It’s hard to imagine who could fill Pike’s scarf. Today’s kids are too knowing and sassy to nail Pike as Lavender did – as an effete, George Raft-fixated distillation of co-writer Jimmy Perry’s Home Guard experiences. Never such innocence again. Perhaps they’ll have to CGI old footage of Lavender into the scenes with Jones and Nighy. It could work.

Don’t Tell Him Pike is at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, until 24 August


Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

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